Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I Write Because I Don't Want to Die

What would I do if the doctor gave me six months to live? I'd type faster.

(Isaac Asimov)

Some of you – possibly as many as none – might have noticed that I missed my regular posting deadline last week. This was occasioned by personal circumstances that I’m not going to discuss here quite yet, although my partner and I felt comfortable with sharing them on another forum. At any rate, my failure to update the blog didn’t prevent it from attracting its largest weekly reader numbers ever, and by quite some margin. So I’m going to start from that this week, and what it says about where and to whom these writings belong.


With the wisdom imparted by nearly three years of blogging, I have largely given up trying to anticipate what will prove popular and what won’t, as I am more frequently wrong than I am right. But even so the success of the post in question – on Richard Scarry’s book What Do People Do All Day? – has really surprised me: especially since it expanded on a recurring topic, I vaguely anticipated that it might interest some of my regular readers and be over in the course of its allotted week. Not so. On week one, it did the rounds mainly on Twitter: concentric ripples that you could almost trace in graphical form, followed by more intricate lines zig-zagging across the Atlantic and occasionally leaping back to this part of the world. Then came James Bridle's booktwo. Then Bobulate and, a week or so later, Kottke and the Ideas section of The Boston Globe. I confess I had never heard of the middle two, but to put them in perspective, Bobulate has two and a half times as many subscribers of the most widely subscribed New Zealand blog [1]; Kottke, nearly fifty times as many. That would be over 57,000 people through Google Reader alone.

I couldn’t begin to credibly extrapolate how many actual regular readers that translates into, except I have a very precise idea of what happens when the blog owner is kind enough to point to something you’ve written. More ripples, but vastly amplified this time, via dozens of tweets and retweets and hundreds of Facebook ‘shares’. Yet nothing that leaves a trace, unlike in the old media: no print runs that get sold out, no physical displacement of resources or tangible, material effect on the physical world. Since the traffic produced very few comments, were it not for the fact that I keep site statistics I wouldn’t even know about it. But always these events affect the writing space, changing the makeup of its readership and therefore the sense of what belongs in it.

In my case, it used to be that the majority of this blog’s regulars came from New Zealand. Now it’s the US first, followed by Britain. I have no control over this, although I suppose that if I were perverse enough I could attempt to put off those overseas readers by writing more local content unlikely to be understood without the appropriate keys. But then I am not from here either, so I would likely alienate New Zealanders even more with my clumsy overreaching. Conversely, I have more readers from France and Germany than my native Italy, a situation I would dearly love to reverse – if only I knew how. Locally accented content alone doesn’t do it, although I’d probably do well to ask myself why I never blog in Italian and see where that takes me. But so long as one persists in writing in the lingua franca, there will always be a pull towards the old imperial centres, where the networks are denser and the blogs and Twitter feeds have a following that easily dwarfs the most popular of our own.

And so it strikes me that the liking and the sharing are also a form of appropriation; that what is being selected by a handful of Great Aggregators or Super Readers are the posts most likely to appeal to the largest and most seamlessly connected cultural networks; and that when it happens to be a fragment of the arguments I am trying to develop on these pages that gets promoted via this highly sophisticated process of selection, by then it’s too late, not to mention churlish, for me to worry about how it could be perceived in isolation. It was mine, briefly, but now it’s gone. Voiceless, anonymised, anthologised along with the many other thousands of fragments that are liked or shared every minute of every day, it will mean what the great text that is the internet in its Anglo-American inflection allows it to mean.


Or so goes the argument that I’m more or less conditioned to make. But the reverse is also true, if not in fact truer: that even to the extent that liking and sharing are a form of appropriation, the author of a blog maintains a high degree of control over his or her writing space; and that in the act of returning, a fraction of the new readers accept to enter into a conversation on topics that don’t lend themselves so readily to global or even cross-cultural consumption, such as the history of social welfare in New Zealand. Furthermore – and this to my mind is a key point – those connections run both ways. And so it’s not just that we can read Iranian bloggers, but also that they can read us, and that we all write each other. This worldwide para-space occupied by people who more and more frequently are at the same time readers and writers is a genuinely new thing, and sometimes the only sane response to its staggering capacity to promote and disseminate texts is simply to marvel at it, as we do when we come across somebody who sits comfortably at the crossroads of culture.

I will return to some of these ideas when I deal with Jaron Lanier’s critique of the social web, but if I may I’d like to interrogate my own place in all of this today, at the cost of indulging in one of those ghastly ‘why I blog’ posts roundly and rightly mocked some time ago by Paul Litterick. Because I don’t mind telling you, in spite of some of the foregoing, that I’m most of all pleased whenever somebody bothers to share something I’ve written. And it’s not just that I have an ego or that I want to be liked, nor that I still find this gig so utterly unlikely, my being allowed to write every week to an actual audience, that ultimately I need to be reassured that it’s okay because look, somebody actually reads the stuff. It’s also that all of these acts map networks of shared interest that in themselves give meaning to the writing, in a process that is rendered more valuable by its being visible and concrete. (And the names on blog rolls operate in a similar way, making visible a more permanent set of connections.)

Without these, without the possibility of making and reading into such connections, I couldn’t really conceive of keeping a blog, and without blogging I’m not sure I could have pursued writing, in this or any other medium. Owen Hatherley alluded to this in one of the most generous write ups ever received by this blog, when he suggested that a certain kind of columnist has been ‘pushed online by the vagaries of wordcounts and networks both technological and institutional’. This is probably true, but the flip side is that I doubt I could in fact have become that columnist in print – not without the apprenticeship.

And so we come to the part that suspiciously resembles a ‘why I blog’ statement. How the hell did I get myself into this? Well, it’s too late now.

For some reason I think quite often about this one sentence from a book by Guido Almansi called La ragion comica, The Comic Reason: Rido soprattutto perché non voglio morire. 'I laugh mostly because I don’t want to die.' I don’t have the book to hand and have since forgotten whether it was a quotation from somebody else, or what Almansi’s general argument even was at that point. It just sits there. Then I go back to a line that I never developed, about how writing doesn’t take time, it makes time. I have come to believe that this is probably true. And the other part, too: that writing can be both a strategy for deferral and a source of pleasure. Joy, even.

I write mostly because I don’t want to die. I’m not even sure what that means, except that I thought of that line while I was preoccupied with something far more important than writing, and while this other thing that I wrote briefly got a life of its own.

[1] A note on the method is probably in order here. There is one piece of public information that can give a rough idea of the relative regular readership of two or more blogs, and it's the number of Google Reader subscribers. It's a far from perfect piece of data - it tends for instance to penalise blogs that don't syndicate the full feed or push particular alternative forms of subscriptions, such as mailing lists or livejournal or blogger following. Public Address for instance is certainly underrepresented by this statistic, which is why when I say 'the most widely subscribed New Zealand blog' (ie Kiwiblog), you shouldn't quote me on it. But that's likely the order of magnitude anyhow.